LONDON A-Z An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums Kew Bridge Steam Museum
Location: Green Dragon Lane, Brentford, TW8 0EN [map] Open: 11am-4pm (closed Mondays) Admission: £9.50 Brief summary: steam, water and grease Website:www.kbsm.org Time to set aside: at least half a day
Every now and then my alphabetical journey throws up a museum I can't believe I haven't been to before. This is one of those. Formerly one of London's most important pumping stations, the Kew Bridge Steam Museum is now a hybridhotchpotch of industrial heritage, machine room and engine shed. It's located by the Thames between Brentford and Chiswick, beneath a giant standpipetower visible for miles around. And hidden within are some absolutely whacking great steam engines. The Industrial Revolution wasn't powered by electricity, oh no, it was much harder work than that.
Quick bit of historical background. The Grand Junction Waterworks Company was formed 200 years ago to supply London with canal-sourced drinking water. This proved somewhat unhygienic so they soon switched their sights to the Thames, constructing a waterworks in Chelsea near the mouth of the Westbourne sewer. Not much better, obviously, so in 1838 they upped sticks to Kew Bridge and piped in cleaner water from midstream. When the building was decommissioned after WW2 the old engines were preserved in case anybody ever raised enough money to turn them into a museum. And they did, so they are.
The museum smells of grease and old rags, which is perhaps not surprising because they're what keep the place together. Every now and then a boiler-suitedvolunteer will scuttle in through one door and out through another, maybe to give some flange somewhere a good oil, or maybe for a well-deserved cup of tea. If you're lucky he's here to fire up one of the engines, so be patient, it could take a while to build up sufficient head of steam. Listen carefully to his enthusiastic commentary and you might learn a fair amount about rotative motion, crankshafts and piston rods. And the threeoldmachines in the central Steam Hall may look large and impressive, but they're some of the smaller beasts that run on site.
Nextdoor are three muchbigger machines, sufficiently tall that you can climb various sets of stairs to view them at beam, cylinder or engine level. On the day of my visit only the Boulton & Wattengine, an 1820 survivor transplanted from Chelsea, was being demonstrated. While one volunteer gave us a rundown of the museum's history, his colleague flipped various levers with rhythmicprecision until the mechanism ran steadily without human intervention. Above our heads a 15 ton beam rose, tripped and fell, forcing several gallons of water into a pondlike sump below. Such majestic power once helped to keep parts of London's water supply cholera-free.
Along another corridor, crammed within a pair of narrow yet lofty brick chambers, stand the museum's CornishEngines. One of these is the world's largest surviving single cylinder beam engine, and the other is the largest working beam engine in the world. Not bad for suburban Brentford. Again there's up-close access on three floors (but this time climbing to the top deck alongside the twin beams gave me an unexpected attack of vertigo). They're both monstrous and magnificent, even when stationary, with pipes and cylinders agleam. Add in venting steam and thrusting rods, on the rare occasions the 90 inch engine is actually fired up, and the experience is one to remember.
Follow the right path downstairs in this maze of a building and you'll find the Water For Life Gallery - a relatively modern display which details the history of water supply and usage in London. Not the sort of attraction you'd normally travel miles to see, and not quite the "fascinating story" the museum's literature promises, but interesting enough if you've ever wondered why the stuff that gushes out of your household tap doesn't kill you. I liked the lengthy wall collage comprising a century of domestic appliances, from hip bath via washing machine to foot spa. There were also special interactive bits for kids, including a robot sewercam and a twirly filtration jar, although nothing that could complete with the steaming whirring engines elsewhere.
And there's more. A 400 yard steam railway operates around the edge of the site (the only fully operational steam railway in London) and visitors can hop on the back for a lightchug through the backyard. I was hoping for a ride on the last train before lunch, but the rear carriages were 90% full of excited families who didn't look like they'd appreciate an obvious non-Dad squeezing in. Instead I made do looking at a stationary waterwheel, and nosing into some deserted workshops, and listening to the history of the standpipe tower via an old telephone.
Time your visit carefully. Not all of the old engines are in steam every day, indeed many are open on special occasions only. Weekdays tend to be quiet, and Sundays tend to have more going on than Saturdays. The last weekend of the month is usually the best time to visit, although watch out for various extra events at other times (model railway shows, wartime reconstructions, Meccano rallies, that sort of thing).
And keep your ticket. Entrance may be fairly pricey but admission lasts for twelve months, so if one particular engine's not running you can come back on another day when it is. Who knows, you might even decide you like the place so much that you sign up as a volunteer, and then you can come back and get your hands greasy whenever you like. I won't be going quite that far, but I'll certainly be giving my ticket another outing. by train: Kew Bridgeby tube: Gunnersburyby bus: 65, 237, 267, 391